Human–wildlife conflict has been the focus of much research, and incidents of damage caused by wildlife to communities, as well as damage inflicted on wildlife by people, have been studied extensively to determine causes, conditions, impacts and mitigation strategies. However, few studies have explored the coping strategies employed by communities to deal with these stressful events. Understanding coping is important, as effective coping builds tolerance towards wildlife, whereas poor coping erodes tolerance and thus jeopardizes conservation. Interviews conducted with people who had experienced damage caused by wild elephants Elephas maximus in eight villages of Assam, in north-east India, found that the stress experienced by the communities as a result of the damage was eased by their religious beliefs associated with elephants, and their feelings of empathy towards these animals. Belief in the elephant as God and as avenger of wrong-doing further strengthened people's coping capacity. These findings have positive implications for elephant conservation, showing that people's tolerance towards marauding elephants can be based on religious beliefs rather than compensation for losses.